Warren Hellman passes

The greatest proponent of bluegrass music in San Francisco, and perhaps the world, has died. Warren Hellman, best known in our community for his creation and funding of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, was a philanthropist that put his money where his mouth was. In addition to major public works projects and good causes, Hellman started the festival in 2001 as the Strictly Bluegrass Festival. This free event takes place in Golden Gate Park each summer, and has grown to attract over 300,000 attendees each year.

Hellman was a money mogul, buying the Levi & Strauss Company at a time when private buyouts were unheard of. And though his money grew enormously, he never played the role of playboy. There are numerous quotes from Warren on how he viewed wealth and money, but I think none sum it up like this one:

“I describe the festival frequently as the world’s most selfish gift. It’s a fantastically selfish gift, but it is a gift. There are hundreds of thousands of people there who are appreciating it. Just being able to do something that is completely not commercial, that is pure, hopefully, pleasure for the participants–to create a surrounding where the musicians and professionals like it as much as the crowd does. How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?”

Laurie Lewis, another west coast bluegrass icon, remembers him as a kind and generous spirit.

“In the ten years that I have had the honor to know Warren Hellman, I have been amazed over and over again by his generosity and kindness, his openness to meeting people and making room in his life for those who he decides to let in. He told me that what he considered a major strength of his in the business world was his ability to read people’s reactions to each other, and to gauge character.

He valued directness and didn’t want to be coddled. In fact, I think he first took a liking to me when he was playing banjo on KPFA radio, and I came into the studio. Everyone was fawning over him and saying how great his playing was. When he asked me how it sounded, I said something like ‘Well, you’ll get better if you practice,’ and he became my instant friend

Warren was generous with his friendship, and there are probably thousands of us who each felt we had some special connection with him. We mourn his passing deeply.

He famously said, in an interview with Forbes.com, that money was ‘like manure. If you spread it around, good things will grow–and if you pile it up, it just smells bad.’ Amen.

We here at Bluegrass Today send our thoughts out to Warren’s family. Also to all the fans who, through the legacy of his festival, will never forget him or his giving spirit. And appropriately so, Speedway Meadows in Golden Gate Park has been renamed Hellman Hollow in his honor. Said his son, Mick Hellman, “It meant a ton to him. He was incredibly gratified.”

Thank you Warren, from all of us in the San Francisco area, and in the bluegrass community at large.

Additional coverage here.

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About the Author

David Thom

Based in Sonoma, California, David Thom is the guitarist and front man for the David Thom Band, as well as mandolinist for the Flatt and Scruggs Tribute Band and Grandpa Banana’s Band. He also runs his own IT consulting business, SonomaComputerPro.com.